By CHUCK BARTELS (AP)
NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Caterpillar Inc. dedicated a $140 million road grader factory Wednesday, a facility that will employ 600 people and produce the big machines for markets around the world.
The plant produced its first grader in June, and two of the behemoths flanked the stage as plant manager Jon Harrison described a four-month training program that’s part of the company’s investment.
"We’re going to export a lot of product from this facility," Harrison said, noting that productivity will have to be competitive on a global scale.
Peoria, Ill.-based Caterpillar laid off 24,000 workers worldwide last year, but the North Little Rock plant stayed on course. Gov. Mike Beebe expressed his gratitude for the company sticking with its plan "in the midst of the worst recession in our lifetimes."
The factory in North Little Rock is operating in a converted videotape and DVD facility. Caterpillar received $3 million from the Governor’s Quick Action Closing Fund to help the project along.
"They (Caterpillar) wouldn’t be here without the Quick Action Closing Fund," Beebe said. The $50 million fund was first approved by the Legislature in 2007 and renewed in 2009.
Arkansas has lost more jobs than it has picked up during the downturn, but Beebe said the state has worked to replace the lost jobs with better ones, such as high-level white collar jobs and upper-end manufacturing.
The recession has only grazed Arkansas, which has made modest budget cuts while other states endured mass layoffs and furloughs. But all hasn’t been roses. Whirlpool Corp. laid off thousands from its refrigerator plant in Fort Smith after it opened a plant in Mexico. That rippled through the community as supplier businesses saw their orders cut or canceled.
Beebe acknowledged that many Arkansans need jobs but pointed to training that is available when opportunities arise.
Pulaski Tech community college worked with Caterpillar to train its workers, a model that other communities in the state have used as new employers opened shop.
Caterpillar said the average wage for workers at the plant would be $21 and hour. Harrison said customer feedback has been "off the charts," adding that the workers share Caterpillar’s quality goals.
"They (the workers) have made a family decision" to join the company, Harrison said.
Beebe said that kind of praise for the work force does more than reflect well on Caterpillar.
"You’re giving us ammunition to get somebody else," Beebe said.
Sen. Mark Pryor was on hand with his counterpart, Sen. Blanche Lincoln, both D-Ark.
"I think people in our state have not given up on American manufacturing," Pryor said.
The state has landed a number of major employers, including wind-energy manufacturers in Jonesboro, Little Rock and Fort Smith, though a Mitsubishi turbine plant for that city is on hold due to litigation. Conway attracted a Hewlett-Packard Co. service center with about 1,000 employees and Little Rock will be home to Southwest Pool Inc., which is building a $62 million headquarters where its 640 employees will earn an average of $85,500 per year. The company manages electric distribution for the multistate region.
Beebe said state revenue numbers that are due later in the week came in above the state fiscal office’s forecast, but said the money will serve as a cushion, not a signal that the recession is over.